Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The health risk in our recycled cardboard food packaging

A huge potential health risk has been unearthed by the decision of several food packagers not to use recycled cardboard for food products.

Jordans, a supplier of breakfast cereals, was the first to make the move, followed by Kellogg's and Weetabix who say they are looking for alternatives.

The worry is that mineral oils originally in newsprint migrate from the packaging into dried food and pose a potential threat to human health.

But this could just be the tip of the iceberg.

According to the International Union of Food Science and Technology and the Institute of Food Technologists, the compliance of what is called "Food contact materials" (FCMS) "with the basic requirement that human health must not be endangered is widely considered as a work in progress; the problems associated with migration were underestimated for a long time."

The food science unions say that migration from FCMs might be "quantitatively the largest source of food contamination. It is, for instance, 2-3 orders of magnitude higher than that from pesticides and at the same time less controlled (Grob et al. 2006)."

They imply that the health situation is much worse than we are led to believe, and the food industry is quiet on the matter because it does not want negative publicity.

If this is true, it is a shocking state of affairs, and might provide a clue, for example, as to why there is an epidemic of food allergies and intolerances.

It was in 2009 that the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) noted that foods packed in paperboard boxes from recycled fibres contain mineral oil in quantities far beyond tolerable limits.

Health concerns were echoed a year ago by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The BfR's report said the mineral oil, which derives from ink used in newspaper printing, could potentially contaminate food products into which they came in contact and pose human health risks.

It recommended that inner bags be used with foods that have high surface contact with cardboard - such as rice and couscous - to prevent substance migration.

This is how most cereals already come, so as a further precaution the German authorities asked Dr Koni Grob at the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zurich to look at the issue. He has been examining the topic for much of the last decade and is the chief scientist to raise these concerns.

The effects on human health

The laboratory examined a sample of 119 products brought from German supermarkets and found that the mineral oils could pass through many of the inner bags used to keep food fresh and dry.

Only an impervious, non-hygroscopic material could prevent the oil passing through, such as foil or thick plastic.

Dr Grob said: "Roughly 30 products from these 119 were free of mineral oil. For the others they all exceeded the limit, and most exceeded it more than 10 times, and we calculated that in the long run they would probably exceed the limit 50 times on average and many will exceed it several hundred times."

The human digestive system finds it difficult to process mineral oils, which may damage the liver, cause chronic inflammation of various internal organs or cancer.

However, consumers would have to be exposed to contaminated foods over many years for their health to be at risk.

Only dry food is potentially hazardous. This includes products such as rice, lentils, pasta, muesli, oat flakes, flour and sugar as well as cereals.

The agreed safe limit for mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons, outlined in European legislation covering plastic packaging, is a concentration of 0.6mg per kilogram.

Industry reaction

Kellogg's says it is looking at alternative packaging materials, "which allows us to meet our environmental commitments but will also contain significantly lower levels of mineral oil" and alternative inner liners.

Weetabix is also looking for packaging that does not contain recycled newspaper.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents Britain's food companies, called the Swiss study was "a good starting point for further investigations" - but does not feel this justifies discontinuing the use of recycled card.

The German government has now told its food and packaging industries to immediately reduce the risk and is looking at introducing mandatory rules.

The UK Food Standards Agency is also conducting research, but only into the amount of mineral oil present in recycled packaging, not how much migrates into the food contained within it.

It's acting head of clinical safety, Terry Donohoe said, "Should there be any evidence from our study - and we will carry out a risk assessment - we will take immediate action to protect the public."

Tackling the packaging supply chain

The CEPI, the Confederation of European Paper Industries, acknowledged the issue when the BfR report was published and called on printers to find alternative inks so that recycled newsprint can continue to be used in packaging.

European legislation requires that the components of printing inks must be listed. There is a 'list A' for those that have been toxicologically evaluated and 'list B' for those not evaluated.

The migration of list B substances must be below 0.01 mg/kg. The list delivered by the European Printing Ink Association (EuPIA) in summer 2009 comprised almost 6000 substances, most of which have not been evaluated.

Enforcement of this legislation is expected to become a delicate issue in Europe.

The producers of the recycled packaging often know little about the materials they use. They have little control over it.

Responsibility must therefore lie with legislators.

Recently the EU Commission introduced legislation insisting on production by good manufacturing practice (GMP) as required by Article 3 of Regulation 1935/2004 and requested compliance declarations and evidence.

This moves away from the concept that specific legislation will be provided for every type of FCM, Because there could be hundreds of them.

It establishes that all business operators in the manufacturing supply chain carry responsibility for the compliance of the final product.

At each production stage, the compliance work must be documented and enforcement authorities have to check whether the arguments used to conclude compliance work were valid.

The difficulty in making the process transparent, as so often with legislation at this level, is over the issue of commercial confidentiality.

The Swiss took matters into their own hands. Their FCM producers implemented this system with information campaigns and a tool box.

Now coordinated with Germany and Austria, they are beginning to collect and evaluate the documented evidence in the supply chain leading to a finished packaging material.

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